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Morning Feature – A Stirring State of the Union

February 13, 2013

Morning Feature

Morning Feature – A Stirring State of the Union

“Partners for progress.” “We can get this done.” “They deserve a vote.” These were the three themes of President Obama’s State of the Union Address. (More)

A Stirring State of the Union

A State of the Union Address is as much ritual as news. From the House doorkeeper’s bellow of “Mr. Speaker, the President of the United States!” to the handshakes as he approaches the dais, from a recitation of policy proposals to reaction shots of applause or silence, from call-outs of guests with illustrative stories to the concluding “God bless you, and God bless these United States of America,” the traditions of this constitutional duty often overwhelm the ideas presented.

Last night, President Barack Obama delivered the most stirring State of the Union Address of my adult lifetime. I heard three key themes:

“Partners for progress.”

Last night President Obama began by quoting President John Kennedy:

Mr. Speaker, Mr. Vice President, members of Congress, fellow Americans, 51 years ago, John F. Kennedy declared to this chamber that “the Constitution makes us not rivals for power, but partners for progress.”

“It is my task,” he said, “to report the state of the union. To improve it is the task of us all.”

This theme of shared duty and responsibility would return throughout his address, from the domestic economy …

It is our generation’s task, then, to reignite the true engine of America’s economic growth: a rising, thriving middle class.

It is – it is our unfinished task to restore the basic bargain that built this country, the idea that if you work hard and meet your responsibilities, you can get ahead, no matter where you come from, no matter what you look like or who you love.

It is our unfinished task to make sure that this government works on behalf of the many, and not just the few, that it encourages free enterprise, rewards individual initiative, and opens the doors of opportunity to every child across this great nation.

… to our shared identity as American citizens:

We may do different jobs, and wear different uniforms, and hold different views than the person beside us. But as Americans, we all share the same proud title: We are citizens. It’s a word that doesn’t just describe our nationality or legal status. It describes the way we’re made. It describes what we believe. It captures the enduring idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another and to future generations; that our rights are wrapped up in the rights of others; and that well into our third century as a nation, it remains the task of us all, as citizens of these United States, to be the authors of the next great chapter in our American story.

“We can get this done.”

His next theme was pragmatic, a call for Congress to set aside partisan bickering and do the work of governing:

And I am open to additional reforms from both parties, so long as they don’t violate the guarantee of a secure retirement. Our government shouldn’t make promises we cannot keep, but we must keep the promises we’ve already made.

To hit the rest of our deficit reduction target, we should do what leaders in both parties have already suggested and save hundreds of billions of dollars by getting rid of tax loopholes and deductions for the well-off and the well-connected. After all, why would we choose to make deeper cuts to education and Medicare just to protect special interest tax breaks? How is that fair? Why is it that deficit reduction is a big emergency, justifying making cuts in Social Security benefits, but not closing some loopholes? How does that promote growth?

Now is our best chance for bipartisan, comprehensive tax reform that encourages job creation and helps bring down the deficit.

We can get this done.

President Obama echoed that refrain on high-tech job center hubs (“We can get that done”), rebuilding our infrastructure (“We can get this done”), comprehensive immigration reform (“Now’s the time to get it done”), and transforming the minimum wage into a living wage (“We should be able to get that done”).

While we should not minimize the legislative hurdles, and President Obama is as aware of them as anyone, this confident “can-do” attitude was a refreshing and clear challenge to Republican obstructionism.

“They deserve a vote.”

The president’s most stirring theme came near the end of his speech, when he turned to the issue of gun violence:

Senators – senators of both parties are working together on tough new laws to prevent anyone from buying guns for resale to criminals. Police chiefs are asking our help to get weapons of war and massive ammunition magazines off our streets, because these police chiefs, they’re tired of seeing their guys and gals being outgunned.

Each of these proposals deserves a vote in Congress.

Now, if you want to vote no, that’s your choice. But these proposals deserve a vote, because in the two months since Newtown, more than a thousand birthdays, graduations, anniversaries have been stolen from our lives by a bullet from a gun. More than a thousand.

One of those we lost was a young girl named Hadiya Pendleton. She was 15 years old. She loved Fig Newtons and lip gloss. She was a majorette.

She was so good to her friends, they all thought they were her best friend.

Just three weeks ago, she was here, in Washington, with her classmates, performing for her country at my inauguration. And a week later, she was shot and killed in a Chicago park after school, just a mile away from my house.

Hadiya’s parents, Nate and Cleo, are in this chamber tonight, along with more than two dozen Americans whose lives have been torn apart by gun violence. They deserve a vote.

They deserve a vote.

They deserve a vote.

Gabby Giffords deserves a vote.

The families of Newtown deserve a vote.

The families of Aurora deserve a vote.

The families of Oak Creek, and Tucson, and Blacksburg, and the countless other communities ripped open by gun violence, they deserve a simple vote.

They deserve – they deserve a simple vote.

That plea for an up-or-down vote on his key gun violence proposals – universal background checks, renewing the assault weapons ban, and a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines – cast President Obama’s themes of “partners for progress” and “We can get this done” in stirring and stark terms.

Senators and Representatives may and will disagree. Our system of government is premised on reasoned debate, and there are legitimate debates to be had on each of President Obama’s policy proposals. But those debates must happen between leaders who see each other “not as rivals for power but as partners for progress,” recognize that – while government cannot solve every problem – “We can get this done” on many problems when we work together, and don’t duck tough issues but accept the responsibility inherent in “They deserve a vote.”


Happy Wednesday!

  • addisnana

    I agree with the themes you identified. I’ll add that one phrase I will be using is “smarter government.” I think it is the perfect replacement phrase for the non-sensical smaller government or less government often used by the right.

    I also hope Democratic congress people ask their counterparts if they are acting like “partners” or just acting like obstructionists.

    • NCrissieB

      I like the “smarter government” phrase too, addisnana, as does Bloomberg‘s Josh Barro, who said Republicans should learn to use it too:

      The Republican Party’s problem isn’t the messenger; it’s the broad economic message. To fix the message, Republicans need to be for smart government. They need to signal that they have a serious policy agenda that considers programs and regulations on a case-by-case basis, rather than just demagoguing the government. They need a real agenda on health care and jobs rather than just opportunistic opposition to anything the president does.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • Gardener

    For the majority of the House, it was a pearls before swine situation, I’m afraid……..

    • addisnana

      At least the gallery was silent this year! I take that as a return to civilized behavior. 🙂

    • NCrissieB

      I’m afraid you’re right, Gardener, for reasons we’ll discuss starting tomorrow. Democrats and Republicans don’t simply disagree on policy details, Tom Allen writes in Dangerous Convictions. We speak and hear different political languages. For example, last night Democrats heard President Obama describe how “smart government” can create “opportunity.” Republicans heard President Obama describe how “big government” can create “dependency.”

      We’ll dig more into that the rest of this week in Morning Feature.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • winterbanyan

    It was an incredibly stirring SOTU. I saw a President, fresh from his electoral victory, feeling the wind at his back and prepared to take on a great many of our problems including climate change.

    Yes, there will be fights and more obstructionism. But that speech laid out a clear agenda and a demand that government start governing. I especially liked the demand for a vote. You want to obstruct, fine. But have the courage of your convictions and put it on a roll call vote. Stand up for your freaking principles instead of acting like cowards.

    The American people deserve a vote on all these things. Period. We deserve to know where our representatives stand.

    I came away even more inspired to work toward electoral victory in 2014.

    • NCrissieB

      I agree, winterbanyan. In most of his ‘big speeches,’ President Obama has been professorial. That’s not bad, and it can be very stirring in its own way. But last night he looked and sounded conversational, as if he were opening a meeting before a group discussion. He sounded both confident and humble … a very difficult combination.

      Alas, I agree there will be more obstructionism … because it’s politically easier to avoid a controversial issue than to cast an unpopular vote.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • I’m paging around the various media sites at the moment, and while I didn’t stick around to watch Rubio’s speech, I gather that it wasn’t a hit.

    Overall, what I noticed was that the Republicans all looked as if they were getting sucker punched. He was telling them “Hey, this is something you said” and then going with how he thought it should be legislated. 😆

    • addisnana

      Rubio is now well known for taking a drink of bottled water. OK then. I saw nothing in the headlines about Ron Paul. I guess most people went to bed before he got his turn.

    • NCrissieB

      I didn’t watch the responses either, but I read that Senator Slurpee didn’t do so well. I haven’t seen anything at all about the Tea Party response given by Sen. Rand Paul, so I have no idea what he said … if anything.

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

      • Wonkette posted this bit about Rand Paul:

        11:30 The good news is that we have finally found a video of the Rand Paul response! The bad news is that it sapped our will to stay up and write about it, so we will do a recap tomorrow morning!

  • LI Mike

    My one word repsonse was – vision. Ezra Klein was a happy guy after the speech. His take: Can you imagine if all of these proposals actually passed? What diffeent country we’d be, these proposals reach into every corner of American life.

    Lawrence O’Donnell put a negative spin on the climate change plea and threat to act singularly if Congress doesn’t act.

    Ms LI Mike’s extra-special take — Boehner looks less orange.

    • NCrissieB

      I agree with your impressions, Mike, although Talking Points Memo‘s Brian Beutler offered a different take on the budget elements of the speech:

      Though the address detailed a raft of policy ideas – most of which he’s proposed before, many of which Congress has declined to act upon – he notably used it as an opportunity to explain the sequester to an audience of millions, many of whom may be unaware that a political impasse with congressional Republicans is once again threatening to damage the economy, in less than three weeks.
      In a background briefing for reporters at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Tuesday afternoon, a senior administration official described the address as a major facet of the president’s ongoing strategy of using his bully pulpit to scare Republicans off of their anti-tax negotiating demands. Obama executed the strategy successfully during the fiscal cliff fight, when Republicans initially rejected higher income tax rates; and during the fight over the debt limit, which the GOP once refused to increase unless paired with concomitant spending cuts.

      With the sequester threatening to pull the rug from beneath our still wobbly economic recovery, President Obama could not ignore the deficit issue. He had to present what seemed like a reasoned alternative to the Republicans’ ideological (and unspecified) calls for “smaller government.”

      Good morning! ::hugggggs::

  • LI Mike

    I will say though, I hate the phrase “live within our means,” and President Obama speaks the lingo of the austerity freaks.

    • winterbanyan

      I couldn’t really object to that because so may Dems in the electorate have been suckered into the deficit is a bad thing position with no realization of how much we’ve cut our spending. I know, because I had to explain it to a few voters on the phone.

      Thus he speaks in the terms that has much of the electorate concerned, even though they don’t know why or begin to understand. It’s reassurance.